What Sex-Positivity Isn’t. Or Shouldn’t Be, Anyway.

These days, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the term “sex-positivity” means. Indeed, the term can mean different things to different people, and that’s alright! Increasingly, however, I’ve been seeing it thrown around as a catch-all term for a hedonistic love of sex or as a shutdown on any critique of sexual behaviors, and I think that is a problem. Below are some of the most common things I’ve seen sex-positivity confused for, and why they’re bullshit.

1. Sex-positivity is Not Brazen Raunchiness

This is possibly the most annoying thing I’ve seen lately in segments of the sex-positivity movement: raunchiness for the sake of “positivity.” I’m no prude, and sexiness certainly has it’s time and place, but appropriating the movement of sex- or body-positivity for the sake of your own desire to gallivant nakedly across a stage and laugh about “what’s the deal with penises, amirite?” is just rewd as fuck, and to the more modest of our sex-positive friends incredibly tiresome.

Being sex positive does not mean being promiscuous necessarily, or even most of the time. Nor does it mean that sex is something naturally meant to be put on display for entertainment. Certainly sex can manifest in these ways completely healthily, but for people to conflate sex-positivity with those things does a disservice to people who believe that sexual expression is healthy and a good thing, but do not themselves believe in sharing it with the public or making light of it. Further, the idea that sex-positivity is entirely about blue humor and in-your-face raciness makes the philosophy look immature, and not the serious movement it aspires to be.

2. Sex-positivity Does Not Excuse All Consensual Acts From Critique

Heina Dadabhoy of Skepchick, although not a sex-positive feminist, said it best: sex positivity should not be “used as a bludgeon by which to silence criticism of anything sex-related.” Got a fetish that’s problematic for racial/cultural/women’s rights reasons? You are not immune from criticism (or at least some critical inquiry) in the name of sex-positivity. I consider myself a sex-positive feminist because I believe that sex as a general umbrella term for human sexual behavior is generally positive and should be celebrated to the fullest extent, whatever that means for each person. That does not mean that all sexual desire is inherently good. I definitely believe in pathologizing what is known to be unhealthy (in the sense that it causes or is likely to cause physical, personal or social harm); and sex-positive people who believe that all paraphilias are positive and normal grate on me and are probably strawmaning sex-positivity.

3. Sex-positivity Is Not Enjoying All Things Sexy

Similar to #2, it’s okay to not be totally on board with everything sexual in existence and still be sex-positive as long as you don’t shame anyone for what they enjoy (barring, of course, enjoying something that hurts people). Sex-positivity should be, and in my experience with other sex-positive feminists is, as much about what you choose not to engage in (see: prudes, asexuals) as it is what actions you do take. I mean, let’s not pretend that all sex-positive people are big fans of thinking about that thing their parents did to make them one night, right? That shit is nearly universally gross. (And yet still perfectly okay! Wouldn’t want to be sex-negative!)

I’ve met self-described “sex-positive” people who, in the name of sex-positivity, strain to find all forms of sexuality wonderful and magical and amazing, and that’s just strange and unnatural to me. Kink not your thing? Perfectly okay, just don’t shame people who choose to engage in or enjoy it themselves.

4. Sex-positivity Does Not Mean Liberation By Increased Sex

I recognize that a lot of the sources I’m using in this article are from people who do not identify as sex-positive feminists, and that that may make my point a bit less convincing when I talk about what sex-positivity is and isn’t. And I’m about to cite another such argument, because while the author does not call herself a sex-positive feminist, I believe that the type of thinking she is exemplifying can certainly fall within the purview of sex-positive feminism, and that it should.

The Tumblr blog Counterstorytelling makes the point here that the idea that increased sexual expression leads to liberation and empowerment (which was a tenet of early sex-positivity, as seen in the 1960s) is one that primarily applies to white women; for women of color, being more expressive sexually often perpetuates stereotypes of exotic eroticism instead. This, however, is not an artifact of sex-positivity as I have experienced it (extensively), and shouldn’t be. Sex-positivity is frequently related to and associated with the idea of choice feminism, although it is important to note that they exist separately of each other, and it is not about increased sexual activity or sexual display. Instead, it is about empowering people to engage in healthy, consensual sexual activities (or the lack thereof, in the case of asexuals) as they see fit. In short, sex-positivity is an anti-shame philosophy that focuses on encouragement of choice and personal preference.

5. Sex-positivity Is Not A Free Pass For Abusers

Sex-negative and sex-critical people sometimes like to point out that the world of BDSM and alternative sexuality host a significant number of abusers who use kink as a cover for their abusive tendencies, and that what appears to be “safe, sane, and consensual” behavior may actually be abuse masquerading as kink. This is certainly true, and I think in many circumstances being a member of the BDSM community makes it easier for abusers to hide, appear normal, and excuse their treatment of victims. But abusive individuals certainly don’t need the help of BDSM and kink to enable their abuse; the current social climate does more than enough to permit their behavior.

That BDSM sometimes provides a guise for abusers to hide behind is not a failing of BDSM itself, nor is it to be considered a problem of sex-positivity for encouraging the sort of engagements that some abusers take advantage of. Most sex-positive individuals recognize that many abusers are also practitioners of kink and alternative sexuality, and that “SSC” (safe, sane and consensual) BDSM and abuse are not to be conflated, despite, to outsiders at least, sometimes being similar in appearance.

6. Sex-positivity Is Not About Individual Choices Empowering Women As A Whole

One of the biggest misunderstandings about sex-positivity and choice feminism that I have encountered is the idea that according to sex-positivity, when (for example) a woman chooses to act in porn, she is making a choice to do so and is therefore empowering women collectively. This is patently untrue; an act that may be empowering for one individual certainly does not have to be for all women, a small individual choice generally has no bearing on the liberation or empowerment of women as a whole, and further (I imagine) could even be counter to the interest of empowerment for women as a whole. Whether a decision is “empowering” or not depends on the individual and his or her choice, and not what it may or may not do for women collectively.

At the end of the day, sex-positivity is about individuals making decisions and having preferences, celebrating those preferences so long as they don’t hurt people, and recognizing that we make decisions based on a variety of different factors and that those factors are sometimes difficult to delineate and dissect. It is not a philosophy that holds that sex is always good, or that sex must be engaged in for a person to be healthy. It is my hope that with increased discussion about sex and sex-positivity, these myths will disappear, and with them the idea that to cast a critical glance at sexuality is to be sex-negative.


Duni Arnold
Duni Arnold is the Junior Editor of Issues for The Flounce and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her subjects of specialty include women’s issues, race, social justice and policy. On a typical day she can be found oil painting, scribbling music, studying economics and browsing the interwebs on her laptop with her dog Star at her feet.
  • botenana

    While I understand a lot of what you are saying, I really have to disagree with the premise. If partners are enjoying consensual sex behind closed doors, and are legally consenting adults, it is no ones right to judge them whatsoever.

    Sex is different to everyone for different reasons and to say that someone’s sexual preferences are more or less valid than others is absolutely a negation of sex positivity.

    • Duni Arnold

      Hmm. I’m glad you shared your input, Allison. I feel as though sex should be viewed from a critical, analytical lens from all times because there are just so many different factors going into attraction and desire and it’s interesting to try to deconstruct them (as difficult as it can be sometimes). For example, while it’s rude for an outsider to comment on such a thing, a man or woman who is only interested in asians should definitely look critically at his attraction to asians and perhaps examine why such a peculiarity might be — without unflinching acceptance. I think a lot of things people consent to can be seen as dangerous or unhealthy and I think it’s a bad idea to accept all things people do consensually under the understanding that “they know better than you do” (though they do) or that it’s “none of your business”.

      • botenana

        Thanks for the response. I want you to know that I respect you and appreciate you writing about this.

        For the most part, in my public life, I am a modest person. I agree that sex-positivity isn’t an excuse for lewd behavior nor should it be used as an attack if someone says “Hey person performing nude and erotically at first Friday, I don’t want my kid exposed to this walking down the street.”

        Just like freedom of speech, sexual freedom doesn’t remove you from the consequences.

        I would really encourage you to take your information from sex-positive feminists in regards to some of your points. I am active in the BDSM community, and I have been a fetish performer/model/actress and professional dominatrix as well.

        While my path is not for all, I cannot say that it was a negative path for me.

        The BDSM community is extremely good at sussing out people who use the guise of Sadism as a cover for abusive tendencies. In MY experience (and I am not a scientist nor am I in any way claiming to have done an official study), the incidence for those being in abusive relationships is about the same in vanilla and lifestyle relationships.

        I also must take issue with your claim that my experience isn’t empowering to women as a whole. My experience in sex work was a positive one. I am not ashamed of it, nor do I regret it in any way, shape or form. Is my experience the rule or the exception? I’m not sure. The women and men that I network with also feel extremely positive about their experiences. Does this mean that every porn actor/actress is happy or empowered by what they are doing? Nope. Does this mean every sex worker is doing it because they want to? Nope.

        But the reason why I see it as empowering is because I get to choose if I feel badly or not about this, and I get to stand up and say to feminists time and time again, listen. Working in the sex industry doesn’t make me broken or damaged goods. It doesn’t make everyone who does it demeaned or demoralized. There are positive experiences out there. For some reason there is a myth around sex work that women only do it because we have no choice or a broken psyche (the stripper with daddy issues cliche is the most common one) and that is not a sex positive attitude. There are those of us – many of us – who work in the trade because we like it. We make good money and it helps us further other goals in our life. To discount us by simply pointing to studies that constantly exclude those of us with positive feelings on sex work is just wrong. To say that just because a man likes it when I whip him, we are participating in something bad or unhealthy negates the fact that as adults, we’ve chosen this act in full acceptance of what we like.

        I get wanting to look at sex critically, but in order to do a true analysis, ALL aspects must be examined, not just socially acceptable ones. Trust me, those of us that have proclivities other than missionary with the lights off have examined ourselves, unflinchingly, because we’ve been told for years that we’re fucked up for liking certain things.

        THAT is a headtrip. THAT is dangerous.

        Sorry I ran off course there.

        • Duni Arnold

          I like your point about taking my information from sex-positive feminists. It makes the most sense to do it that way, only I find myself frequently in agreement with sex-negative feminists on the issue of critical analysis and yet start disagreeing with them when they call themselves sex-negative and generally appear less friendly with kink and BDSM than I am.

          I certainly trust that your path was a positive one, and that you did something that was good for you! I just don’t see how it could possibly be empowering to women on the whole. It’s certainly an empowering thing for you, personally, but I take issue when I see women deciding to be, say, dominatrices and acting as though they’re doing women a great service the world over. That seems to be a perversion of the idea of empowerment to me.

          I’d just like to emphasize again that I am hardly the type of person to think that a stripper is a girl with daddy issues or that someone in kink necessarily has “problematic” interests or reasons for being in the community. There’s nothing inherently wrong at all about a man who likes to be whipped by you, and unless he’s being grievously harmed in the process (at which point I think things turn around) he shouldn’t be judged for it. Trust me, I understand very well what you’re talking about. When you say that all aspects need to be examined, I am all for that. It’s not always possible (in fact, it’s rarely possible), but one should always try to take into consideration every possible factor when casting a critical eye. And I think that’s certainly possible with the kind of sex-positive feminism I’m talking about. I think we can look at someone and their interests, accepting that we don’t know as much about them as they do, and speculate about whether the fact that they like a certain thing is dangerous or harmful, even if they consent. There needs to be a dialogue, even about things that happen within the confines of a bedroom.

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